Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

EURIPIDES: ÆSCHYLUS AND SOPHOCLES--COMPARISON. 131

We easily perceive that Æschylus has viewed the subject in its most terrible aspect, and drawn it within that domain of the gloomy divinities, whose recesses he so loves to haunt.

The grave of Agamemnon is the murky gloom from which retributive vengeance issues; his discontented shade, the soul of the whole poem. Th obvious external defect, that the action lingers too long at the same point, without any sensible progress, appears, on reflection, a true internal perfection: it is the stillness of expectation before a deep storm or an earthquake. It is true the prayers are repeated, but their very accumulation heightens the impression of a great unheard-of purpose, for which human powers and motives by themselves are insufficient. In the murder of Clytemnestra, and her heart-rending appeals, the poet, without disguising her guilt, has gone to the very verge of what was allowable in awakening our sympathy with her sufferings. The crime which is to be punished is kept in view from the very first by the grave, and, at the conclusion, it is brought still nearer to our minds by the unfolding the fatal garment: thus, Agamemnon, after being fully avenged, is, as it were, murdered again before the mental eye. The flight of Orestes betrays no undignified weakness or repentance; it is merely the inevitable tribute which he must pay to offended nature.

It is only necessary to notice in general terms the admirable management of the subject by Sophocles. What a beautiful introduction has he made to precede the queen's mission to the grave, with which Æschylus begins at once! With what polished ornament has he embellished it throughout, for example, with the description of the games! With what nice judgment does lie husband the pathos of Electra ; first, general lamentations, then hopes derived from the dream, their annihilation by the news of Orestes' death, the new hopes suggested by Chrysothemis only to be rejected, and lastly her mourning over the urn. Electra's heroism is finely set off by the contrast with her more submissive sister. The poet has given quite a new turn to the subject by making Electra the chief object of interest. A noble pair has the poet here given us; the sister endued with unshaken constancy in true and noble sentiments, and the invincible heroism of endurance; the brother prompt and vigorous in all the energy of youth. To this he skilfully opposes circumspection and experience

EURIPIDES: HIS ELECTRA,

in the old man, while the fact that Sophocles as well as Aischylus has left Pylades silent, is a proof how carefully ancient art disdained all unnecessary surplusage.

But what more especially characterizes the tragedy of Sophocles, is the heaveuly serenity beside a subject so terrific, the fresh air of life and youth which breathes through the whole. The bright divinity of Apollo, who enjoined the deed, seems to shed his influence over it; even the break of day, in the opening scene, is significant. The grave and the world of shadows, are kept in the background: what in

schylus is effected by the spirit of the murdered monarch, proceeds here from the heart of the still living Electra, which is endowed with an equal capacity for inextinguishable hatred or ardent love. The disposition to avoid everything dark and ominous, is remarkable even in the very first speech of Orestes, where he says he feels no concern at being thought dead, so long as he knows himself to le alive, and in the full enjoyment of health and strength. He is not beset with misgivings or stings of conscience either before or after the deed, so that the determination is more steadily maintained by Sophocles than in Æschylus; and the appalling scene with Ågisthus, and the reserving him for an ignominious death to the

very close of the piece, is more austere and solemn than anything in the older drama. (Clytemnestra's dreams furnish the most striking token of the relation which the two poets bear to each other: both are equally appropriate, significant, and ominous; that of Æschylus is grander, but appalling to the senses; that of Sophocles, in its very fearfulness, majes

; tically beautiful. )

The piece of Euripides is a singular example of poetic, or rather unpoetic obliquity; we should never have done were we to attempt to point out all its absurdities and contradictions. Why, for instance, does Orestes fruitlessly torment his sister by maintaining his incognito so long? The poet, too, makes it a light inatter to throw aside whatever stands in his way, as in the case of the peasant, of whom, after his departure to summon the old keeper, we have no farther account. Partly for the sake of appearing original, and partly from an idea that to make Orestes kill the king and queen in the middle of their capital would be inconsistent with probability, Euripides has involved himself in still

EURIPIDES : HIS ELECTRA.

133

greater improbabilities. Whatever there is of the tragical in his drama is not his own, but belongs either to the fable, to his predecessors, or to tradition. In his hands, at least, it has ceased to be tragedy, but is lowered into "a family picture,” in the modern signification of the word. The effect attempted to be produced by the poverty of Electra is pitiful in the extreme; the poet has betrayed his secret in the complacent display which she makes of her misery. All the preparations for the crowning act are marked by levity, and à want of internal conviction: it is a gratuitous torture of our feelings to make Ægisthus display a good-natured hospitality, and Clytemnestra a maternal sympathy with her daughter, merely to excite our compassion in their behalf; the deed is no sooner executed, but its effect is obliterated by the most despicable repentance, a repentance which arises from no moral feeling, but from a merely animal revulsion. I shall say nothing of his abuse of the oracle of Delphi. As it destroys the very basis of the whole drama, I cannot see why Euripides should have written it, except to provide a fortunate marriage for Electra, and to reward the peasant for his continency. I could wish that the wedding of Pylades bad been celebrated on the stage, and that a good round sum of money had been paid to the peasant on the spot; then every. thing would have ended to the satisfaction of the spectators as in an ordinary comedy.

Not, however, to be unjust, I must admit that the Electra is perhaps the very worst of Euripides' pieces. Was it the rage for novelty which led him here into such faults? He was truly to be pitied for having been preceded in the treatment of this same subject by two such men as Sophocles and Æschylus. But what compelled him to measure his powers with theirs, and to write an Electra at all?

ET RIPIDES: HIS REMAINING WORKS.

LECTURE X.

Character of the remaining Works of Euripides—The Satirical Drama

Alexandrian Tragic Poets.

Of the plays of Euripides, wbich have come down to us in great number, we can only give a very short and general account.

On the score of beautiful morality, there is none of them, perhaps, so deserving of praise as the Alcestis. Her resosution to die, and the farewell which she takes of her husband and children, are depicted with the most overpowering pathos. The poet's forbearance, in not allowing the heroine to speak on her return from the infernal world, lest he might draw aside the mysterious veil which shrouds the condition of the dead, is deserving of high praise. Admetus, it is true, and more especially his father, sink too much in our esteem from their selfish love of life; and Hercules appears, at first, blunt even to rudeness, afterwards more noble and worthy of himself, and at last jovial, when, for the sake of the joke, he introduces to Admetus his veiled wife as a new bride.

Iphigenia in Aulis is a subject peculiarly suited to the tastes and powers of Euripides; the object here is to excite a tender emotion for the innocent and child-like simplicity of the heroine: but Iphigenia is still very far from being an Antigone. Aristotle has already remarked that the character is not well sustained throughout. “Iphigenia imploring,”

“has no resemblance to Iphigenia afterwards yielding herself up a willing sacrifice.”

Ion is also one of his most delightful pieces, on account of the picture of innocence and priestly sanctity in the boy whose name it bears. In the course of the plot, it is true, there are not a few improbabilities, makeshifts, and repetitions; and the catastrophe, produced by a falsehood, in which both gods and men unite against Xutbus, can hardly be satisfactory to our feelings.

he says,

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

EURIPIDES: HIS MEDEA.

135

As delineations of female passion, and of the aberrations of a mind diseased, Phadra and Medea have been justly praised. The play in which the former is introduced dazzles us by the sublime and beautiful heroism of Hippolytus; and it is also deserving of the highest commendation on account of the observance of propriety and moral strictness, in so critical a subject. This, however, is not so much the merit of the poet himself as of the delicacy of his contemporaries; for the Hippolytus which we possess, according to the scholiast, is an improvement upon an earlier one, in which there was much that was offensive and reprehensible *.

The opening of the Medea is admirable; her desperate situation is, by the conversation between her nurse and the keeper of her children, and her own wailings behind the scene, depicted with most touching effect. As soon, however, as she makes her appearance, the poet takes care to cool our emotion by the number of general and commonplace reflections which he puts into her mouth. Lower does she sink in the scene with Ægeus, where, meditating a terrible revenge on Jason, she first secures a place of refuge, and seems almost on the point of bespeaking a new connection.

This is very unlike the daring criminal who has reduced the powers of nature to minister to her ungovernable passions, and speeds from land to land like a desolating meteor ;-the Medea who, abandoned by all the world, was still sufficient for herself. Nothing but a wish to humour Athenian antiquities could have induced Euripides to adopt this cold interpolation of his story. With this exception he has, in the most vivid colours, painted, in one and the same person, the mighty enchantress, and the woman weak only from the social position of her sex. As it is, we are keenly affected by the struggles of maternal tenderness in the inidst of her preparations for the cruel deed. Moreover, she announces her deadly purpose much too soon and too distinctly, instead of brooding awhile over the first

* The learned and acute Brunck, without citing any authority, or the coincidence of fragments in corroboration, says that Seneca in his Hippolytus, followed the plan of the earlier play of Euripides, called the Veiled Hippolytus. How far this is mere conjecture I cannot say, but at any rate I should be inclined to doubt whether Euripides, even in the censured drama, admitted the scene of the declaration of love, which Racine, however, in his Phædra, has not hesitated to adopt from Seneca.

« VorigeDoorgaan »